The Cross and Christian Identity

I wrote this reflection for my seminary’s blog at http://www.TalkingPointsGR.com this past Easter. I had recently read a book by Bruce Longenecker called, “The Cross Before Constantine”. I thought it was a beautifully written historical analysis of how the cross was used as a Christian symbol in antiquity and what it must have meant to early Christians. 

It doesn’t take more than five minutes of watching network news to convince a person that we live in very dark and confusing times. American culture is deeply divided along fault lines of race, politics, economics, religion, and human rights. Polarizing words such as San Bernardino, ISIS, Ferguson, North Korea, Guantanamo Bay, Syrian Refugees, Planned Parenthood, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders all come to mind. The world is longing for justice and significance, but more importantly, it is looking for answers and searching for identity.

Christians are no exception to this. Our evangelical identity has also been called into question over the last year. Dr. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, recently said he no longer wants to be called “evangelical” because of its association with one of the most incendiary political cycles in recent memory. In times like these, there are no shortages of candidates, causes, and slogans to identify with. But, as Christians, what cause and what symbol do we let dominate our imaginations? What is our master story through which we view our world?

With these questions in mind and in anticipation of the Easter season, I picked up a copy of Bruce Longenecker’s new book, The Cross Before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol. His book explores the significance of the cross in the lives of early Christians prior to the reign of Constantine. In the 4th century, Constantine made Christianity a religion of prominence in the Roman Empire. In our day, the cross has become such a common symbol that we tend to distance it from its original context, thus stripping it of its offensive nature and provocative reminder that “…Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12). The writer of Hebrews continues:

“Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14).

Early Christians were only a generation or two removed from the time of Jesus and lived in a world that still experienced crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire. These Christians acutely understood the social stigma of worshiping a crucified messiah and the kind of paradoxical upside-down power this action boasted. This, I believe, is the upside-down way of life that Paul spoke of in Philippians 2:1-11.

In early Christian contexts, the cross was not simply an icon of religious devotion or a symbol of piety. Instead the cross was a radical symbol proclaiming the fundamental identity of these early Jesus-following communities. Longenecker recalling this fact as he writes,

This symbol [the cross] sent the message to suprahuman entities that to mess with people associated with the cross is to mess with a supreme power—a power that even the forces of death cannot conquer. Prior to Constantine, the cross was not primarily an aid to Christian worship or feature of Christian architecture adorning centralized places of collective adoration; instead, it was often used as an all-important mark of identity in an insecure world in which evil lurked virtually everywhere. It shielded its beneficiaries in a world threatened by the constant insurgency of evil. It offered the protection of the deity who underwent death’s defeat but who rose to a victorious life over the most feared of all enemies (p. 187)

These words have served as a reminder for me that my primary boast is in Christ-crucified. My fundamental identity is found in a God who would suffer and die on my behalf and this frees me to be an agent of healing in a confused world. The beauty of the cross is that it does not operate on the level of worldly systems of power so I don’t have to believe the insecurities of the culture around me. I am “shielded as a beneficiary” of a crucified messiah who loves me.

In light of the quote above, what ways does identifying with the cross challenge you or upset the way you inhabit the world? Looking toward Good Friday, what sorts of worldly patterns does Jesus call you to leave behind in order to meet and suffer with Him outside the areas of cultural prominence?


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